Paolo Banchero scores his first NBA triple double. What is a triple double in basketball?

Paolo Banchero Dunking in High School
Paolo Banchero Dunking For O’Dea High School in 2020

By Robert Lutz

In a remarkable performance on January 5, 2024, Paolo Banchero of the Orlando Magic secured his first career triple-double, contributing significantly to his team’s victory over the Denver Nuggets. Banchero achieved 32 points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assists, coupled with three steals. His outstanding play included making two crucial free throws with just 9.1 seconds left, following a foul during a fast break initiated by a steal. This achievement places him among an elite group of only seven NBA players who have recorded a 30-10-10-three game before their 22nd birthday. This illustrious list includes basketball greats like Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Steph Curry, and Luka Doncic.

In the world of basketball, few achievements garner as much respect and admiration as the triple-double. A statistical feat that signifies a player’s all-around game, a triple-double occurs when a player accumulates double digits (in other words, gets at least 10) in three of five statistical categories—points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks—in a single game. This rare accomplishment highlights a player’s versatility and ability to influence the game in multiple ways.

The Origin and Evolution of the Triple-Double

The term “triple-double” was coined in the early 1980s by former Los Angeles Lakers PR director Bruce Jolesch, who wanted a way to highlight Magic Johnson’s all-around skills. However, the concept predates the term, with players like Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain frequently achieving the feat in the 1960s and 1970s, although it wasn’t tracked officially during their era.

Oscar Robertson, famously known as “The Big O,” remains one of the most significant figures in the history of the triple-double. In the 1961-1962 season, Robertson achieved the seemingly impossible, averaging a triple-double throughout the entire season—a feat that stood unmatched until Russell Westbrook achieved it in the 2016-2017 season.

The Significance of a Triple-Double

Achieving a triple-double is considered a testament to a player’s skill and versatility. It requires a player to be proficient in scoring, defending, and creating opportunities for teammates. While points, rebounds, and assists are the most common combination, the inclusion of steals and blocks in the criteria emphasizes defensive prowess as well.

The Impact on Game Strategy

The quest for triple-doubles has also influenced how the game is played and coached. Players known for achieving triple-doubles, like LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and Nikola Jokić, often have their teams’ offenses and defenses built around their versatile skills. This can lead to more dynamic and unpredictable gameplay, as opponents must prepare for a player capable of impacting the game in various ways.

Statistical Insights and Criticisms

While the triple-double is an indicator of a player’s all-around ability, it has faced criticism from some quarters of the basketball community. Critics argue that the pursuit of triple-doubles can lead to players prioritizing personal stats over team success. Additionally, some argue that the triple-double can be a misleading indicator of a player’s impact, as it doesn’t account for efficiency or the context of the game.

Despite these criticisms, the achievement continues to be celebrated and sought after in the basketball world. It’s a milestone that not only showcases a player’s individual talent but also often correlates with team success. Players who consistently record triple-doubles are usually key contributors to their teams.

Memorable Triple-Doubles in Basketball History

Throughout basketball history, there have been numerous memorable triple-double performances. Magic Johnson’s triple-double in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals as a rookie, where he started at center in place of an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and led the Los Angeles Lakers to a championship, stands out as particularly iconic. Similarly, Russell Westbrook’s record-breaking 42 triple-doubles in a single season captured the imagination of basketball fans worldwide.

The Future of the Triple-Double

As the game of basketball continues to evolve, so does the significance and frequency of the triple-double. Today’s players are more versatile than ever, and the triple-double has become a more common occurrence. However, this doesn’t diminish its significance as a barometer of a player’s all-around game and ability to influence various aspects of play.

The triple-double remains one of the most revered achievements in basketball. It symbolizes a player’s versatility, skill, and ability to contribute to their team’s success in multiple ways. As basketball continues to evolve, the triple-double will undoubtedly remain a key metric for evaluating the all-around abilities of the sport’s best players.